The worst nightmare for the US Navy is a shortage of aircraft carriers

The U.S. Navy reportedly is considering cutting an aircraft carrier, dropping the number of flattops to 10 in the short term and potentially just eight in the longer term, despite a legal requirement for the service to operate at least 11 carriers.

Twelve carriers are recommended by the Navy’s own force-structure evaluation.

On February 26, 2019, David Ignatius, a journalist for The Washington Post, broke the news of the proposed downsizing. A day later, Breaking Defense verified that the 21-year-old USS Harry S. Truman is the concerned vessel.

The Navy will propose canceling the Truman’s 2024 mid-life refurbishment in its 2020 budget plan, thus requiring the service to decommission the ship once its nuclear reactor cores begin to fail somewhere in the 2020s.

Midway through the 2020s, retiring Truman would reduce the carrier fleet from 11 to 10, therefore preventing the Navy from ever having 12 flattops. According to Breaking Defense, the decision could save the Navy $30 billion over the course of 25 years.

According to former deputy defense secretary Bob Work, “We would have a smaller, but younger fleet.”

Carrier costs are high. Building them costs several billions of dollars, and they cost many more billions every year to staff, outfit, and run. In late December 2017, as the Cold wαr came to an end, the Navy gradually reduced the flattop fleet to a modern low of 10 ships. Despite a rule passed in 2006 mandating that the Navy retain 12 carriers

A 2007 amendment to that policy allowed the fleet to drop down to 11 carriers. The dip to 10 flattops lasted just eight months before a new, 11th carrier commissioned into service in the summer of 2017.

In December 2016, then-Navy secretary Ray Mabus announced a new force-structure goal for the U.S. fleet. Under Mabus’s plan, the sailing branch would expand from around 280 front-line wαrships to 355, including 12 carriers, in order to better compete with the growing Chinese navy.

The Trump administration largely has adhered to Mabus’s plan, although in recent months it has signalled a slowdown in shipbuilding that could slow the rate of expansion. The sailing branch also is considering replacing some planned new ships with cheaper robotic vessels.

Regardless of the speed of development, a larger U.S. fleet has solid bipartisan backing. The Obama administration wanted to increase the fleet to 308 front-line ships before Mabus’ 2016 review.

The plans for fleet growth were successful. The fleet had increased to 289 significant ships by early 2019 from a low of 271 ships in 2015.

For the third and fourth new Ford-class carriers, the Navy paid Virginia shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls $15 billion in February 2019. Despite persistent issues with Ford’s design.

Buying two carriers at once was supposed to help the Navy finally to achieve its goal of having a dozen carriers in service at all times, although under the worst-case scenario it would have taken the fleet until the 2060s to do so, according to a February 2019 report from the Congressional Research Service.

“The Navy projects that under the [fiscal year] 2019 30-year shipbuilding plan, the carrier force would reach 12 ships in FY2022 to FY2024, then drop back to 11 ships and remain there in subsequent years, except for FY2040, FY2042 to FY2044 and FY2046 to FY2047, when it would drop to 10 carriers and FY2048 (the final year in the 30-year period), when it would drop to nine carriers,” the CRS explained.

But the CRS published its report before the Navy proposed to cancel Truman’s overhaul. If Congress consents, the carrier fleet could shrink to just eight in 2048.

The force structure may be recovered through new construction. An aircraft carrier, however, needs to be built and maintained over a long period of time, which requires consistent funding. Any possibility for a 12-flattop fleet could be postponed until after the 2060s if Truman is decommissioned in the 2020s.

That is to say, never. Unnamed Hill staffer told Breaking Defense, “I can’t imagine this will go over well at all.”

Congress overruled the Obama administration’s 2014 proposal to prematurely retire USS George Washington, the sister ship of the Truman, and increased the Navy’s budget by billions of dollars to keep Washington in service.

It’s unlikely Congress will approve the Navy’s proposal to cancel Truman’s overhaul, Breaking Defense concluded. Navy leaders know that, and might be floating Truman’s early retirement in a bid to squeeze more money out of lawmakers.

“The mid-life overhaul has been used as a bargaining chip for a larger budget in the past,” Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and naval analyst, told Breaking Defense.

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